Abundance, Obesity, and Health: Two (or Three) Questions But No Answers

Today in the New York Times, I read a piece by Mark Bittman in which he wrote about the correlation between money and food. “With a lack of money comes either not enough food or so-called empty calories, calories that put on pounds but do not nourish.” No argument there. Healthy food does indeed cost more than junk food, and if the intent is to buy as many calories as possible when the budget is tight, then that huge bag of store-brand potato chips certainly fits the bill.

The fact that good, healthy food is so abundant in the United States makes the situation even worse. Bittman continues, “In fact, it’s hard to imagine having a food supply as abundant as ours and doing a worse job with it.” Again, no argument. The United States is the land of plenty. Why should good food be out of reach for so many people?

In his piece, Bittman also writes about social justice, the marketing of junk food, and the lack of emphasis on food education. Bittman concludes that what this country needs is a national food and health policy, “one that sets goals first for healthful eating and only then determines how best to produce the food that will allow us to meet those goals.”

As I read Bittman’s article, two questions came to mind. The first, which I have written about in other posts, is this: Why was obesity the exception rather than the rule when I was growing up in the 1960s? I realize that my neighborhood in North Vassalboro can hardly be considered a broad sample of the times, but there was only one obese family on the road where I lived. Most everyone else was in pretty good shape. And here’s the thing: While gardens and home-cooked meals were the norm, we did not hold back with salty snacks and sweets. As I noted in a previous post, we ate sugary food with a gusto that would have made Shakespeare’s Falstaff proud.

We did play outside a lot—children, all the time, and adults when their work allowed. Could this be the difference? Could eating out also be a factor? Families today eat out much more than they did when I was child. Perhaps today’s families really do take in more calories than families did in the 1960s, despite the abundance of  salty snacks and sugary sweets available to us back then.

Anyway, I don’t have an answer to this one. Only the question.

The second question is even more complicated than the first and needs a bit of a backstory. We evolved on the savannahs of Africa where salt, sugar, and fat were very hard to come by. Therefore, it is no surprise that we have also evolved to crave salt, sugar, and fat. But the problem is that we no longer live on the savannahs. To borrow from another writer—I can’t remember her name—we now live in Candy Land where there are many, many temptations.

And this not just a problem in the United States. As wealth increases in countries such as China and India, so does obesity. Overeating is a human problem, not a Western problem. So how do we combat that? How do we overcome our natural tendency to gorge on fats and sweets? (For myself, I have developed a regimen where I eat healthy, low-calorie foods six days a week and splurge on the seventh. This approach helps, and I am more or less maintaining a healthy weight. )

Even though I don’t really have any answers, I feel as though these two questions must be asked: Why wasn’t obesity such a problem in the 1960s, and how can we deal with the natural tendency to gorge on salt and sweets?

And just for fun, we can throw in a third question: How does money and status affect obesity?

If we can address those questions, then we will go a long way toward addressing the problem of obesity.


4 thoughts on “Abundance, Obesity, and Health: Two (or Three) Questions But No Answers”

  1. I peep into people’s grocery carts every week and am amazed by what I see. Mostly crackers, cookies, chips. Donuts. Candy bars. Canned items like ravioli and chili. Very little meat, very few (if any) fruits and/or vegetables. Nothing remotely “fresh.” Unlike you, Laurie, in the 1960s, we got the treat of potato chips only when we went camping in the summer. But never throughout the rest of the year. It was a big deal to get a box of Wheat Thins maybe three times a year, which was shared by our family of four. The pancreas perceives refined carbohydrates as sugar…sugar is also perceived as sugar – !! So we release insulin so we can cope with foods our bodies are not designed to consume. In our inner cities, fresh food is simply not available since the major grocery stores are no longer there. I cannot imagine trying to put together a nutritious meal from the items found in a 7-11, can you? I feel fortunate that I can make many foods my family loves from scratch, using lots of delicious vegetables and some meat…sort of a different kind of health insurance.

  2. Yes, indeed, Karen! The shelves at grocery stores are filled with processed food, which means people buy them on a regular basis. However, I do have a good grocery cart story to tell. Not long ago, I was in our local grocery store, and the woman in line ahead of me looked so healthy and attractive. (I would guess she was in her fifties.) When I looked into her cart, I was not surprised to see it was full of fresh fruit and vegetables. As to why we were not obese in the 1960s even though our mothers regularly made cookies and desserts, and we kids went to the corner store for treats at least once a day in the summer, it is still a mystery to me.

    1. Quite a mystery! Looking back, there were pizza places, but only visited rarely (twice a year?), and a trip to McDonald’s was maybe twice a year, too. Pop was not something we drank. We got Shasta pop only when we went camping in the summer. Laurie – when you went to the candy store at least once a day during the summer, did you also have some type of pastry and/or pop to go with the candy? Because that’s what I see these days. I’ll bet you only had the candy cigarettes or the Sweet Tarts – without the other items. And how long did you make your Halloween candy last? Ours usually lasted until summer!

      1. Karen, you are right. When we went to the store, we only got candy, often pieces of penny candy. There was a glass case full of it at the front of the store. We did not buy soft drinks and did not drink them very often. And we never bought pastry. So maybe that is part of the answer. As for my Halloween candy…I am afraid I did not have the self control that you had 😉 Mine was gone well before Christmas.

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